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Sound waves let quantum systems ‘talk’ to one another

Researchers at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory have invented an innovative way for different types of quantum technology to “talk” to each other using sound. The study, published Feb. 11 in Nature Physics, is an important step in bringing quantum technology closer to reality.

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Researchers are eyeing quantum systems, which tap the quirky behavior of the smallest particles as the key to a fundamentally new generation of atomic-scale electronics for computation and communication. But a persistent challenge has been transferring information between different types of technology, such as quantum memories and quantum processors.

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“We approached this question by asking: Can we manipulate and connect quantum states of matter with sound waves?” said senior study author David Awschalom, the Liew Family Professor with the Institute for Molecular Engineering and senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.

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One way to run a quantum computing operation is to use “spins”—a property of an electron that can be up, down or both. Scientists can use these like zeroes and ones in today’s binary computer programming language. But getting this information elsewhere requires a translator, and scientists thought sound waves could help.

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“The object is to couple the sound waves with the spins of electrons in the material,” said graduate student Samuel Whiteley, the co-first author on the paper. “But the first challenge is to get the spins to pay attention.” So they built a system with curved electrodes to concentrate the sound waves, like using a magnifying lens to focus a point of light.

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The results were promising, but they needed more data. To get a better look at what was happening, they worked with scientists at the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne to observe the system in real time. Essentially, they used extremely bright, powerful X-rays from the lab’s giant synchrotron, the Advanced Photon Source, as a microscope to peer at the atoms inside the material as the sound waves moved through it at nearly 7,000 kilometers per second.

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“This new method allows us to observe the atomic dynamics and structure in quantum materials at extremely small length scales,” said Awschalom. “This is one of only a few locations worldwide with the instrumentation to directly watch atoms move in a lattice as sound waves passes through them.”

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One of the many surprising results, the researchers said, was that the quantum effects of sound waves were more complicated than they’d first imagined. To build a comprehensive theory behind what they were observing at the subatomic level, they turned to Prof. Giulia Galli, the Liew Family Professor at the IME and a senior scientist at Argonne. Modeling the system involves marshalling the interactions of every single particle in the system, which grows exponentially, Awschalom said, “but Professor Galli is a world expert in taking this kind of challenging problem and interpreting the underlying physics, which allowed us to further improve the system.”

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It’s normally difficult to send quantum information for more than a few microns, said Whiteley—that’s the width of a single strand of spider silk. This technique could extend control across an entire chip or wafer.

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“The results gave us new ways to control our systems, and opens venues of research and technological applications such as quantum sensing,” said postdoctoral researcher Gary Wolfowicz, the other co-first author of the study.

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The discovery is another from the University of Chicago’s world-leading program in quantum information science and engineering; Awschalom is currently leading a project to build a quantum “teleportation” network between Argonne and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory to test principles for a potentially unhackable communications system.

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The scientists pointed to the confluence of expertise, resources and facilities at the University of Chicago, Institute for Molecular Engineering and Argonne as key to fully exploring the technology.

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“No one group has the ability to explore these complex quantum systems and solve this class of problems; it takes state-of-the-art facilities, theorists and experimentalists working in close collaboration,” Awschalom said. “The strong connection between Argonne and the University of Chicago enables our students to address some of the most challenging questions in this rapidly moving area of science and technology.”

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Other coauthors on the paper are Assoc. Prof. David Schuster, and Prof. Andrew Cleland; Argonne scientists Joseph Heremans and Martin Holt; graduate students Christopher Anderson, Alexandre Bourassa, He Ma and Kevin Satzinger; and postdoctoral researcher Meng Ye.

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The devices were fabricated in the Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility at the William Eckhardt Research Center. Materials characterization was performed at the UChicago Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.

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Citation: “Spin-phonon interactions in silicon carbide addressed by Gaussian acoustics.” Whiteley et al., Nature Physics, Feb. 11, 2019. doi: 10.1038/s41567-019-0420-0

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Funding: Air Force Office of Scientific Research, U.S. Department of Energy Office of Basic Energy Sciences, National Science Foundation, Department of Defense

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Gates Cambridge Scholar to study science behind art conservation

Ellen Purdy has always been passionate about art, inspired by childhood trips to the museum, but the fourth-year student wasn’t sure how to incorporate that lifelong interest into her chemistry coursework. It wasn’t until she studied abroad in Spain—and learned about the science behind art conservation—that her unique academic path began to take shape.

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“I’ve always had an interest in art and art history because it was a particular passion of my grandfather's,” Purdy said. “He brought me along to museums and told me a lot about his favorite artists. It has really been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.”

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A newly named recipient of the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Purdy will learn more about the intersections between science and art next year, when she pursues a master of philosophy in chemistry at the University of Cambridge. The highly competitive scholarship, established by a donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was awarded this year to 34 academically distinguished U.S. students who have proven themselves as leaders and are committed to improving the lives of others.

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“We take great pride that Ellen has been recognized with this prestigious honor and will have the opportunity to build upon the interdisciplinary work in conservation science she began at the College,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “We look forward to seeing how Ellen’s time at Cambridge shapes her long-term interests and the impact she will have on her field.”

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Purdy first learned about conservation science while studying abroad in Madrid and Seville as part of a unique eight-week Foreign Language Acquisition Grant program. Soon after, she decided to declare an art history minor on top of her existing chemistry major.

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“I think that art plays a really important role in how people relate to the world, and it’s what makes life interesting for me. Research in this field is both important to society writ large and something that I am personally passionate about,” Purdy said.

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Her interest in conservation science was solidified after participating in the Suzanne Deal Booth Seminar, a unique conservation course at UChicago taught by Maria Kokkori, a conservation scientist at the Art Institute of Chicago. In that class, Purdy had the opportunity to see up close the process of restoring art, and her final project involved using spectroscopy to analyze a Kandinsky painting.

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At Cambridge, she plans to work with Prof. Stephen Elliott, a leading scholar of spectroscopy—the study of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation. Purdy is especially interested in Elliott’s work using spectroscopy to preserve art.

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“This technique involves scattering light off a surface, exciting electrons and then measuring the energies of particles emitted when these electrons drop back down to lower energy levels,” Purdy explained. “It allows us to identify different paint pigments and understand how pigments were applied by the artist. It has the potential to be nondestructive, meaning that the analysis process doesn’t damage a sample, which is really important for conservation work.”

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Purdy was first exposed to spectroscopy working in a lab with Steven Sibener, the Carl William Eisendrath Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry at UChicago. Alongside Sibener, Purdy used lasers to destroy chemicals resembling nerve agents, and then used spectroscopy to analyze what particles remained.

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“Ellen’s creative approach to her science, her independence and drive are, frankly, typical of the very best graduate students that we see in the sciences at UChicago. I am personally honored to have helped guide her as she took her first steps as an independent researcher, and look forward to seeing her blossom into a next-generation leader in her chosen field of endeavor as a Gates Cambridge Scholar,” Sibener said.

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After completing the one-year program at Cambridge, Purdy aims to pursue further graduate education in chemistry and art history, in the hopes of someday working in a museum conservation lab.

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“I’m fascinated by what scientific analysis can tell us about works of art and how it can be used to preserve these works for future generations. Conservation work is not often emphasized in exhibitions, but without it, the art we see would look a lot different and much of it would not exist,” Purdy said.

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Purdy received application support from the College Center for Research and Fellowships, which guides candidates through rigorous application and interview processes for nationally competitive fellowships.

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Hundreds of species at risk due to slow policy process

From parrots to lizards, hundreds of animal species could be at risk of extinction because of a policy process that responds slowly to scientific knowledge, according to a new study in Science. The study suggests concrete steps policymakers can take to speed up a wildlife protection process that can take more than two decades.

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“New trends in wildlife trade can develop quickly, with some species going from common to near extinction in just a few years,” said study co-author Eyal Frank, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, who works at the intersection of ecology and economics. “A policymaking process needs to respond quickly to new information in order to prevent extinction for hundreds of animals and plants. That’s why it’s absolutely critical that policymakers allow science to inform a speedy protection process.”

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Frank and co-author David Wilcove of Princeton University analyzed 958 species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List that are endangered by international trade. Of those, they discovered that 28 percent are not protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the primary international framework for preventing species extinction due to international wildlife trade.

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When studying how quickly species from the Red List became protected under CITES, they found that 62 percent needed to wait as long as 19 years for protection under CITES or are still waiting to be listed up to 24 years after being first considered. These patterns are the same for even the most threatened species.

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At the same time, the study points out that 36 percent of species studied were protected by CITES before making it on the Red List. This could be because the CITES authorities had information not available to the IUCN, or it could be due to staffing and other resource constraints at the IUCN.

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“CITES and the Red List are two of the most important tools we have to save wildlife threatened by international trade. It’s vital that these two institutions work together closely and quickly to stop the killing,” said Wilcove, who is based at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

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Frank and Wilcove recommend that any nation that is part of CITES advocate that Red List species threatened by international trade be quickly protected under the treaty in order to clear the backlog, with the goal being that any threatened species on the Red List that is threatened by trade receive a prompt vote for immediate protection under CITES. Independently from CITES, all countries can use the Red List as a source of information and take measures to protect threatened species found within their borders.

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—Article originally appeared on the EPIC website.

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Bigger teams aren’t always better in science and tech

In today’s science and business worlds, it’s increasingly common to hear that solving big problems requires a big team. But a new analysis of more than 65 million papers, patents and software projects found that smaller teams produce much more disruptive and innovative research.

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In a new paper published by Nature, University of Chicago researchers examined 60 years of publications and found that smaller teams were far more likely to introduce new ideas to science and technology, while larger teams more often developed and consolidated existing knowledge.

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While both large and small teams are essential for scientific progress, the findings suggest that recent trends in research policy and funding toward big teams should be reassessed.

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“Big teams are almost always more conservative. The work they produce is like blockbuster sequels; very reactive and low-risk,” said study co-author James Evans, professor of sociology, director of the Knowledge Lab at UChicago and a leading scholar in the quantitative study of how ideas and technologies emerge. “Bigger teams are always searching the immediate past, always building on yesterday's hits. Whereas the small teams, they do weird stuff—they're reaching further into the past, and it takes longer for others to understand and appreciate the potential of what they are doing.”

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Knowledge Lab is a unique research center that combines “science of science” approaches from sociology with the explosion of digital information now available on the history of research and discovery. By using advanced computational techniques and developing new tools, Knowledge Lab researchers reconstruct and examine how knowledge over time grows and influences our world, generating insights that can fuel future innovation.

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The Nature study collected 44 million articles and more than 600 million citations from the Web of Science database, 5 million patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and 16 million software projects from the Github platform. Each individual work in this massive dataset was then computationally assessed for how much it disrupted versus developed its field of science or technology.

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“Intuitively, a disruptive paper is like the moon during the lunar eclipse; it overshadows the sun — the idea it builds upon — and redirects all future attention to itself,” said study co-author Lingfei Wu, a postdoctoral researcher with the University of Chicago and Knowledge Lab. “The fact that most of the future works only cite the focal paper and not its references is evidence for the ‘novelty’ of the focal paper. Therefore, we can use this measure, originally proposed by Funk and Owen-Smith, as a proxy for the creation of new directions in the history of science and technology.”

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Across papers, patents and software products, disruption dramatically declined with the addition of each additional team member. The same relationship appeared when the authors controlled for publication year, topic or author, or tested subsets of data, such as Nobel Prize-winning articles. Even review articles, which simply aggregate the findings of previous publications, are more disruptive when authored by fewer individuals, the study found.

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The main driver of the difference in disruption between large and small teams appeared to be how each treat the history of their field. Larger teams were more likely to cite more recent, highly cited research in their work, building upon past successes and acknowledging problems already in their field’s zeitgeist. By contrast, smaller teams more often cited older, less popular ideas, a deeper and wider information search that creates new directions in science and technology.

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“Small teams and large teams are different in nature,” Wu said. “Small teams remember forgotten ideas, ask questions and create new directions, whereas large teams chase hotspots and forget less popular ideas, answer questions and stabilize established paradigms.”

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The analysis shows that both small and large teams play important roles in the research ecosystem, with the former generating new, promising insights that are rapidly developed and refined by larger teams. Some experiments are so expensive, like the Large Hadron Collider or the search for dark energy, that they can only be answered by a single, massive collaboration. But other complex scientific questions may be more effectively pursued by an ensemble of independent, risk-taking small teams rather than a large consortium, the authors argue.

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“In the context of science, funders around the world are funding bigger and bigger teams,” Evans said. “What our research proposes is that you really want to fund a greater diversity of approaches. It suggests that if you really want to build science and technology, you need to act like a venture capitalist rather than a big bank — you want to fund a bunch of smaller and largely disconnected efforts to improve the likelihood of major, pathbreaking success.”

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“Most things are going to fail, or are not going to push the needle within a field. As a result it's really about optimizing failure,” Evans added. “If you want to do discovery, you have to gamble.”

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Citation: “Large Teams Develop Science and Technology; Small Teams Disrupt It” Nature Feb. 13, 2019. Doi: 10.1038/s41586-019-0941-9

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Funding: DARPA Big Mechanism grant, the John Templeton Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

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Melting water causing Antarctic ice to buckle, scientists confirm

For the first time, a team of scientists from the University of Chicago and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences has directly observed an Antarctic ice shelf bending under the weight of ponding meltwater on top—a phenomenon that may have triggered the historic 2002 collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf.

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It’s thought that the flexing of ice shelves could potentially impact other vulnerable ice shelves, causing them to break up, quickening the discharge of ice into the ocean and contributing to global sea level rise.

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“Scientists have been predicting and modeling this process for some time, but nobody has ever collected field data that showed it happening until now,” said Alison Banwell, a postdoctoral visiting fellow at CIRES and lead author of a new study published Feb. 13 in Nature Communications.

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The team was inspired to look closer at the causes of ice shelf weakening after analyzing the catastrophic breakup of the Larsen B ice shelf. That breakup made headlines in 2002 as 1,250 square miles of ice broke away into the ocean, leaving glaciologists stunned.

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Examining data, scientists noticed that in the months leading up to the breakup, the ice shelf was dotted with more than 2,000 meltwater lakes.

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“Up until Larsen B, glaciologists thought that we understood ice shelf breakup—they would advance north until they got too thin,” said study co-author Doug MacAyeal, a UChicago professor of geophysical sciences who has been traveling to the Antarctic to study the behavior of ice and snow for decades. “What Larsen B taught us was that once an ice shelf has copious meltwater running across its surface, it will defy the predictions of stability for drier ice shelves and break up.”

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During the melting season, lakes may form on the surface of ice shelves, pooling the weight of melting snow and ice into many areas of liquid water. These lakes can weigh 50,000 to 2 million tons each, and that pushes downward on the ice, creating an indent. If the lake drains, this indent pops back up. If the resultant stress is large enough, the ice surrounding the lake basin weakens, and may start to break, the researchers predicted.

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To measure just how much these meltwater lakes were distorting the floating Antarctic ice, Banwell, MacAyeal and the team first had to scout where they thought the lakes would develop. They identified four lake basins to outfit with GPS sensors.

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In November 2016, before the melt season began, the team drove snowmobiles from the U.S. McMurdo Station over the frozen sea ice to access their field site on the McMurdo Ice Shelf, pulling hundreds of pounds of equipment on sleds. At each of the four lakes, they installed self-contained instruments that measured vertical elevation and lake water depths—each fixed on a metal pole drilled over 6 feet deep into the ice. Three months later, they flew via helicopter to retrieve the instruments (by then, the sea ice was too thin to support the weight of a vehicle).

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The team found that at the center of each lake, the ice shelf moved down and then up by around 3 to 4 feet in response to each lake filling and then draining.

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Climate models predict that there will be more melting across more ice shelves over the next few decades, leading to an increase in the occurrence of meltwater lakes, the scientists said.

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“These observations are important because they help us better understand the triggers of ice shelf breakup, which leads to sea level rise,” said Banwell. “Our results can be used to improve models to better predict which ice shelves are more vulnerable and are most susceptible to collapse.”

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Citation: “Direct measurements of ice-shelf flexure caused by surface meltwater ponding and drainage.” Banwell et al, Nature Communications, Feb. 13, 2019. doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-08522-5

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Funding: U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.K. Leverhulme Trust, NASA, CIRES- University of Colorado Boulder.

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—Story adapted from a CIRES press release

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